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April 2016

Renewed faith in America's bare board business?

HCI Equity Partners acquired KCA Electronics and Marcel Electronics International Circuits. HCI also announced the appointment of IPC Director Shane Whiteside as President and CEO. Whiteside had worked with HCI before to form and grow TTM.

APCT Holdings Company, the ownership group of APCT Inc., has acquired the Wallingford Connecticut based printed circuit fabricator, Tech Circuits, Inc.

In Memoriam

We lost another icon this past month, Eugene Ronald Selven. Although he had a long history in the semiconductor industry at such firms as TI, Fairchild, and Raytheon, many of us will best remember him as the Publisher of Chip Scale Review for which I wrote a column for several years. Gene bought the journal from Tessera in 1999 and built it to prominence in the semiconductor industry. What I remember most about Gene was his insight and gentlemanly way of handling challenges. It was always a pleasure being with him to discuss the industry or to exchange "fish stories".  Although he has been retired for a number of years, his passing last month has created a vacuum felt by many. Chip Scale Review continues today under the auspices of Kim Newman, Gene's daughter.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump singled out 3D printing in his first foreign policy speech as one of the advanced technologies that America should develop and protect.

The electro-deposited copper foil industry is booming in China, but not for PCBs and CCLs. The factories are running at full capacity for the battery industry. The significant portion is for electric cars. About 50,000 electric cars were sold in Shanghai alone in 2015. The margins are much better than for PCBs and CCLs, so it is anticipated that price and delivery issues will arise. The batteries are primarily made in Asia.

The market for assembly (SMT) equipment and robotics has improved substantially in China this month. It appears that some companies could no longer delay purchases of equipment that had been on hold. The same recovery has NOT yet been noticed for bare board fabrication systems.

In a recent “It’s Only Common Sense” column Dan Beaulieu wrote, “And the cold hard fact is that the smaller guys are on their own. They have no one to look out for them, no one at all. Over the years, IPC has made it abundantly clear that they have a vast amount of interest in the big guys, but very little interest in the smaller shops.” Then Dan went on to list 10 advantages that he felt smaller fabricators have over the “big guys.”

I have a different view. The IPC does not work for any individual company. It DOES work for most companies if they actively participate together as a group in activities that are in their best collective interests. The IPC interacts with our government in behalf of all interconnect companies. It provides a vehicle whereby a class or group of members can get together and work on programs for their MUTUAL benefit.

The IPC is reinventing itself. It does more than just develop standards. It offers training for member companies and its employees. It provides focused showcases for its members’ products and services combined with a major conference every year. It recognizes that the electronic supply chain is changing and new solutions must be found as more and more systems bring silicone and components closer together in packages.

It recognizes the global world of packaging and works to the benefit of all its members. It fosters cooperation and consortia to the benefit of its fabricators, assembly and packaging members…and industry.

The IPC even has a Vice President in charge of Member Success. Changes are inevitable. Major consolidations have reshaped the industry. Supply chains are changing. Those that wish to avoid the fate of buggy whips should rethink their company strategies.

To this end I am working towards presenting a PCB Executive Forum, under the auspices of the IPC, to be held at the next IPC APEX EXPO event in San Diego next February. It will be focused on helping the “smaller companies” overcome today’s industry challenges. It will be designed to help CEO’s, Presidents and company owners solve some of the problems they face in today’s environment. All members of the bare board fabricating community as well as their supply chain will be invited to attend, even if they are not currently members of the IPC.

Chinese counterfeiters caught with the goods

Daofu Zhang, 40, of Shenzen, China, pleaded guilty this month in New Haven federal court to conspiring to sell counterfeits of sophisticated integrated circuits to a purchaser in the United States. His co-conspirator Yan proposed to supply the U.S. source with “fake” ICs that “look the same,” to replace the ones to be stolen from the military. Yan and another co-conspirator, Zuo were also apprehended and plead guilty last month. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Henry Kopel* and U.S. Department of Justice Counterintelligence and Export Control Section Trial Attorney Casey Arrowood. *Kopel is the son-in-law of Gene Weiner, Publisher of Weiner’s World.

We have been predicting this for the past several years

Taiwan-based PCB players are pushing into car-use products as demand for PCs, smartphones and tablets has been weakening. Chin Poon (experiencing record profits) and Tripod Technology, which have been operating in the car-use PCB market for a long time, are looking to expand their presence in the market, while newcomers including Unitech, Unimicron Technology, Global Brands Manufacture (GBM), Apex International, Zhen Ding Tech, and Ichia have been trying to catch up. With demand for smart car applications including Internet of Things (IoT), semi-auto drive, infotainment systems, around-view monitoring systems, parking sensors and portable navigation devices, growing rapidly, demand for related upstream components such as PCBs is rising, and many PCB makers are aggressively looking to grab a share of the market. Car-use components require certification from car vendors, and the process usually takes more than 2-3 years. (Source DIGITIMES, April 14)

A senior ADI manager said to us, "Today, automotive is everything!"

We just received a solicitation from a board fabricator offering the following

  -Express PCB Prototyping(2-40 layer) 

-HDI PCB with 4mil laser holes -Flexible Printed Board(1-8 layer)

-Flexi-rigid Printed Board

-High Frequency Board (Rogers,Arlon,PTFE) 

-Blind/Buried Via Board

-High Tg Thick Copper PCB (Up to 12 oz with TG210)

-Mix-Material(FR-4+Rogers) Multilayer PCB 

-Embedding Resistance/Capacitance Board 

Halogen-free/Lead-free Board

-Thick Gold Plating/Immersion Gold/ENEPIG Board

Yep! You guessed it! It came from China. How many of America's remaining 200 or so board builders (excluding those "giants" with multi hundred millions in sales) can match all of the listed 11 items as a service? Do you consider the ability to build lots of 20 or 100 complex HDI boards at a time in a secure U.S. location necessary for America's defense? If so, who will support the acquisition of the capital equipment needed to do so? Who will provide (pay for) the expensive secured digital network required by prime contractors (Raytheon, Lockheed, Boeing, etc.)? The latter could cost up to a million dollars - a bit on the "rich side" for shops with an annual turnover of just $10 or $15 million or so.

Caveat emptor

The April 15 online edition of PCB Update had a column by Peter Bigelow, President and CEO, of IMI that offers very sound advice worth repeating in the wake of a number of recent industry false starts and overly ambitious claims. A very brief summary is below.

Be judicious when studying “game-changing” technologies! Improvements pitched as being the elusive “one size fits all” breakthrough usually are not. We must be diligent, using rigorous analysis and verification, to avoid processes that are oversold but underperform. If a new material, machine, or  process simplification does not improve overall quality, add to overall capability, or have a measurable, favorable impact on cost, it most likely is not worth the effort. Many very interesting – and promising – technologies may be game-changers for us all. However, some, such as conductive inks, have been around for decades but are still just not ready for prime time. Others may have the potential to transform the industry in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. We need to be aware and inquisitive about all but not allow ourselves to become too mesmerized by any until they demonstrate tangible and proven value.

Intel said it plans to reduce its global workforce by up to 12,000 jobs, or 11%, as the semiconductor giant reported a worse-than-expected 7% increase in first-quarter revenue. The chip maker said the job cuts are part of the company's restructuring away from a computer-based company to one that powers the cloud and billions of connected computing devices. (Source WSJ)

Chinese direct investment in the U.S. rose to a record last year. China's investors placed $15+ billion into 171 transactions in the U.S. According to Rhodium’s China Investment Monitor, they helped add 13,000 full-time jobs for Americans last year.

The joint IPC APEX HKPCA show in Shenzhen China is now be the largest in the printed circuit industry. It will be about 500,000 square feet at the next edition in December 2016. That's four times the recent IPC event in LAS Vegas.

BPA’s short term PWB forecast for 2016 is essentially flat with different segments increasing or declining as in the following summary:

  • Consumer – falling levels of demand
  • Automotive – healthy demand and a bright spot supported by new applications
  • High speed equipment – steady demand
  • Computers – flat or decline
  • Medical and industrial – steady demand growth
  • Handsets – flat
  • Military – flat
  • Aerospace – steady demand

BPA’s 2016 worldwide semiconductor forecast is suggests that we will see a flat year to a single figure contraction (in semiconductor value terms) of shipments compared to 2015. With the macro economic factors as they are at the time of writing, the analysis would conclude that 2016 sales growth will be flat compared to 2015. However, the less optimistic outcome (supported by the semiconductor forecasts), may well be a contraction of between 3-5%.

Hope is NOT a good reason to exhibit

Nothing really new was seen at 26th Flat Panel Display Expo (FINETECH JAPAN) early this month. Primary exhibitors were chemical, material, and manufacturing equipment firms. Most presentations were improvements in existing products. For example in the case of thin films: less thickness, higher heat resistance, longer flexing endurance, smaller loss with high frequency, or higher dimensional stability - rather than something truly new. Kenshi (Dominique) Numakura, DKN Research covered the show. He  stated that these companies were not expecting a huge amount of business; their goal was to engage some potential customers for a future business relationship. A marketing representative from a large company told him that "he had hopes" of attracting one customer with future product application needs. Numakura said, “Everyone in Japan is trying to scratch out a living. No one has thrown in the towel yet, and they all need one lucky break.”

Never ending

When I first started in this industry nearly 60 years ago there were just two major shows: NEPCON East at the Coliseum in New York, and NEPCON West at the Anaheim Convention Center. This then grew to two major show seasons which added exhibits across the Atlantic River (in the UK) and the Pacific Pond (in Japan*) the Spring and Fall. Now it appears to be one long never ending season that all too often shows little that is truly new, presents a major step forward, or a potentially disruptive technology. Visitors roam through these (often regional) events hoping to find that magic bullet that will propel them forward into better yields, lower costs, or a new opportunity. The next such "major" event is NEPCON China 2016 at the Shanghai World Expo & Convention Center April 26 ~ 28.

*(I presented a technical paper at the first INTERNEPCON JAPAN in the early  70s when I was VP of Business Development  of OXY Metal Finishing - a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum).  Can you guess at just came in by email ? An advertisement   for INTERNEPCON Japan, January18 20, 2017 !

Market penetration by "dumping" used refurbished products?

Apple will try to gain some traction in the world's 2nd largest mobile phone market (India) by importing and selling refurbished iPhones. Apple, which has 2% of the market, is meeting resistance from its "local" competition and may once again be denied access via this route. 4/5 of smartphones there cost less than $150 with some branded phones priced as little as $35.

The Board of Directors of China telecommunications equipment maker ZTE will meet this month to replace three of its most senior executives as a result of the company being accused of violating of U.S. trade rules. The U.S. Department of Commerce slapped trade sanctions on ZTE last month, claiming that it violated rules by exporting American technological goods to Iran and other nations.

IDC announced that the fast-growing 3D printer market continues to be dominated by foreign brands although Chinese vendors are catching up and growing faster. The top five players in the China 3D printer market are all foreign brands: EOS, Stratasys, Renishaw, ZRapid, and Solidscape. Stratasys (Makerbot) and 3D systems also headed the list for desktop models, but the rest of the top five in this category belong to Chinese vendors Xery, Flashforge, and Beijing Tiertime. In terms of China's export market for desktop 3D printers, the top 3 brands Flashforge, Beijing Tiertime and Winbo account for 50% of the market.